It had been more than a couple of years since I had travelled to any destination that wasn’t at a driving distance from Mumbai. Our last two vacations were road trips, one short trip to the famed Old Magazine House at Dandeli in Karnataka (The Old Magazine House, Part 1 – Initiation into the birders paradise) and then a longer road trip to Gujarat that included the Statue of Unity, Little Rann and Velavadar. With the pandemic on its lowest ebb since it started I finally bit the bullet and decided to plan a trip that necessitated taking a flight on a commercial airline.
Taking a flight was something that I still wasn’t very comfortable with (It makes no sense as I am a medical professional that has been always at risk throughout the pandemic) but something I had to restart sometime. So as cases decreased & most states removed pre flight test restrictions for travellers I started planning a trip for early April. The mountains have always been my first choice for a vacation, especially in the hot Indian summer. We had been to the Great Himalayan National park in Himachal Pradesh ( Trekking the Great Himalayan National Park, Part 1 – The long walk to Rolla )the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand ( Sattal, Part 1 – First time birding in the forests of the Himalayas ) in our last two Himalayan vacations. So this time I chose the Chopta region of Garhwal in Uttarakhand as our destination. This had multiple reasons, the main being that the Himalayan Monal, a bird that this region is known for is one I have always wanted to see and photograph. Even though it was not peak birding season ( March is better) I knew that if we stayed long enough we would surely see at least one Monal, that was incentive enough for me.
The Chopta region also has some beautiful short hikes, one to Tungnath – the highest Shiva temple in the World and another to Deoriyatal – a beautiful high altitude lake. The better half being an avid trekker was interested in those. So I included those in our plans so that we had a healthy mix of both our interests in the vacation. As a bonus it was also around the time that the forest is full of blooming Rhododendrons and I was hoping that we would be able to see that amazing natural phenomenon with our own eyes.
Once the destination and dates were decided, flights to and from the Jolly Grant (Dehradun) airport that services the region were quickly booked. We chose Magpie Jungle Camp, a tented camp for our stay in Chopta and Deoriyatal as it looked like the most well located of the plethora of tented camps in the region. The most convenient direct flights reached Jolly Grant in the evening & Chopta is at least a 6 hour drive from the airport. So it meant we needed to spend a night in Rishikesh, the town closest to the airport ( Dehradun is farther away and in the opposite direction) as driving after dark is not something that we like doing.
Rishikesh is a town that was known as a pilgrim town on the banks of the Ganga in the days gone by. Nowadays it is known more for Yoga and River Rafting. In the main town every other shop either is a yoga centre or provides rafting services. Since we were not doing any of those activities we were looking for a hotel that provided a peaceful refuge in an otherwise bustling hill town. I also had a nostalgia for the Lakshman Jhula, the historic bridge across the Ganga. The gently swaying bridge had terrified a very young me and I wanted to see if walking across it would still be as unnerving as I remember decades later. So we chose a hotel in Rishikesh close to the Laxman Jhula that had good reviews – The Kunwar Residency.
We had a relatively uneventful 2.5 hour flight from Mumbai to Jolly Grant. We collected our luggage and booked a taxi at the airport that would drop us to the Lakshman Jhula parking lot. Our hotel was located in the pedestrian only area near the historic bridge and Google maps ensured that we reached the hotel without getting lost.
First flying vacation after a gap of more than two years
After a quick check in we descended two levels to our room. It was exactly what we wanted, a comfortable room with direct view of the Ganga and the Lakshman Jhula over it. We rested our legs for a while before we started exploring out.
Our comfortable room at the Kunwar Residency
The view of the river and the bridge from our room balcony
We had rested for half an hour when the loudspeakers started and we immediately knew what it was. The Ganga Arti is another big tourist attraction in any town on the mighty river. We were far away from the Triveni Ghat which has the most spectacular of the innumerable Ganga Artis in town. We had no intention of crossing the crowded town just to witness the Arti. So we were very pleased to see that there was a Ganga Arti right across the river from our hotel at the Trimbakeshwar Hotel Complex. I got out the 300mm to practice on Pandits doing the Arti before it hopefully got some pretty bird photos later on.
The Ganga Arti at the Trimbakeshwar Temple captured from our room with the 300mm
As the Ganga Arti winded down and the sun went down, the lights came on the Lakshman Jhula and the temples and buildings lining the river making for a pretty sight. We walked the small garden of the hotel and took some photos before deciding to have an early dinner and venture onto the bridge. The hotel had room service and the food turned out to be delicious. I was certainly glad I had found this little hotel online.
The beautiful looking riverfront and Lakshman Jhula all lit up
Satiated we went for our night walk to the Lakshman Jhula. The Lakshman Jhula is the mythological location where Lakshman crossed the Ganga on two Jute Ropes. The” Modern bridge” ( the current version is standing since 1930!) was the first “Jeepable” bridge in the region across the Ganga built by the British. It has been repaired numerous times since then and is now considered unsafe. It is only a pedestrian bridge at present with huge warnings on either ends that are promptly ignored by the throngs crossing it daily. It is due to be replaced with a new bridge sometime in the future and I’m glad I could see and cross the rickety old bridge before it closes permanently.
The crowded Lakshman Jhula at night
As expected the bridge was crowded and we just ventured on it for sometime and took a few photos when we got a break in the crowd and returned to the hotel leaving the actual crossing to the next morning. As in any tourist destination the only way to avoid crowds is to start early. So after a peaceful night’s sleep we woke up at dawn and made our way to the Jhula again. And it was predictably empty, making for a much more peaceful experience.
The empty Lakshman Jhula at dawn makes for a peaceful experience
Even though it was peaceful in the morning crossing the aptly named “Jhula” (Cradle) was still an unnerving experience for me. The city dweller in me isn’t used to bridges swaying under my feet so I found myself involuntarily clutching at the barriers every time the bridge swayed in the gentle morning breeze. As if that would do me any good if the bridge went crashing down into the mighty river below! But all in all it was a great experience crossing the historic bridge, taking photos and just enjoying the atmosphere. Sans the crowds you can understand why pilgrims came here to meditate.
The view of the Ganges from the Lakshman Jhula
Nervous me on the Lakshman Jhula
A bull uses the Lakshman Jhula to get to the other side
The warning signs on the Lakshman Jhula and barriers preventing vehicles from using the bridge
A bull enjoys the view of the Jhula and the river before the crowds arrive
With the Lakshman Jhula spanned successfully it was time to visit one of the ghats and go down to the Ganga itself. We didn’t have to travel far for it as we were located right next to the Tapovan public ghat and we went down to the river before it got too crowded.
At the Tapovan Ghat in Rishikesh on the banks of the Ganga
The better half enjoying the cool morning breeze
We walked along the rocks and the white sand for some time, took a lot of photos and enjoyed the view. As we had started early we didn’t encounter any crowds and made it a fun morning in Rishikesh. Soon it was time to return to our hotel as we had a long journey coming up.
Enjoying the morning at Tapovan Ghat
The Lakshman Jhula from the Tapovan Ghat
We ordered some piping hot parathas for breakfast as the hotel kitchen opened. As with the dinner , the parathas were delicious and devoured in no time. It was now time to say goodbye to Rishikesh & start our journey to Chopta. So we checked out of the wonderful Kunwar Residency and walked to the parking lot where the vehicle and driver we had hired for the remainder of our trip had arrived.
We arranged our luggage & set off for Chopta. We had a relatively comfortable 6 hour journey considering the mountainous terrain. We stopped only for lunch & before that at Devprayag to see & take photos of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers uniting to form the Ganga.
The formation of the Ganga at Devprayag
It had been a short but memorable time spent in Rishikesh. We had just explored a small corner of the bustling and now sprawling town. We had not even ventured near the newer Ram Jhula or visited any temple / ashram in a town with more than a temple/ ashram a lane. But we had achieved what we had set out to do – enjoy a peaceful morning in a otherwise unbearably crowded town.
Whether Chopta would live up to its reputation is topic for future posts some other time, some other day.